I'm no fan of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or his apparently successful effort to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees, nor do I agree with his shifting of the fiscal burden away from corporations and onto the middle class. The courting of corporations with public dollars, tax abatements and other perks will do little but drive a race to the bottom as surrounding states respond in kind. Leaders in other states have been able to work far more constructively with their unions in crafting solutions to fiscal challenges. But a focus on Scott Walker puts us all in danger of missing the forest for the trees. I am convinced that the people of Wisconsin sent a message to its public employees this week, a message of which public employees across the country should take heed.
Pro-labor pundits have decried the "divide and conquer" strategy to which Walker confessed in discussion with a billionaire donor. What such persons have not considered is public labor's role in creating that divide. States and municipalities across the country are wrestling with major deficits and a time bomb of public employee retirement and health benefit packages. These are obligations that have been established through negotiations over the years that have been obviously successful for labor. But public employees should be aware that very few if any of their private sector counterparts enjoy anywhere near the health and retirement packages available in the public sector. How palatable is it for a middle class private sector service worker to see his tax burden rise to pay benefits that he could never hope to see in his job? How empathetic is a person who must stuff money into 401k and IRA facilities to the public sector retiree who receives benefits that are orders of magnitude larger than the money he actually put towards retirement. How acceptable is it to see a public sector employee retire from one position after 20 years at 95% of salary, then go back into another public sector job to build another full stream of retirement benefits?
Pro-union and pro-labor as I am, I cannot deny that seeing these and other abuses would leave voters bitter - even those from households with a union tradition. They weigh down the search for long-term solutions and serve to isolate public labor from the rest of the middle class. Our public sector pension and benefits construct must be reformed. Unions can either take the lead in helping to craft solutions to these very real challenges or they can wind up dealing with an increasing number of Scott Walkers with whom negotiation might be too late.